Saving Lives, Saving Face, Making Peace: A Review of KILLING MEMORIES

“Killing Memories” begins like a movie script:

A black screen with sounds of gunfire: Rifles. Machine guns. Running. Shouting. Chaos.

The first images appear and a voice remembers: “That evening when I killed that first soldier I sat down to write my mom a letter and I just started bawling. I just couldn’t tell her about it.”

In “Killing Memories,” director Pete Pepper’s cathartic documentary film of redemption, the images, the sounds, the grief, and the nightmares are real even 42 years after the experience. Captain Pepper and four of his men who served under him in Vietnam are unable to purge their combat memories.

It’s a film about choices, healing, regret and respect. Respect for fellow soldiers and compassion for enemies, face-to-face killing and those who called the shots.  Captain Pete Pepper was one of those who called the shots: “My memories are of those who didn’t make it…my men, my orders, my memories.”

“We called them gooks.”  “They called us monkey men.”  “It’s easier to kill someone if you make them different from you.”  In a place so full of misery, they didn’t fight “for some grand idea.”  They “fought to stay alive.”

Eventually the war was over; Captain Pepper and his company went home, but the memories lasted, spilled over and exploded into Pepper’s personal life.  Dealing with his own anger, unable to help his wife with hers, he lost her when she took her own life.  On the brink of following in her footsteps, some of his men found him and in 2009, they returned to Vietnam, met their former enemies and began to make peace with the past.

Hanoi. Saigon.  Cu Chi.   In a country returned to normal, how to make amends? How to regain respect?

At a revisit to the dark tunnels of Cu Chi, Benito Garcia remembered: “Men yelling for their mothers…just yelling in pain, and you couldn’t do a fucking thing to help them.”  “The war’s not over.  It’ll never be over.”

Why are we here again? How do we lighten the load?

Five Americans and two Vietnamese soldiers came together, met at a memorial and returned to the battlefield.  New experiences were made, hands were shook and confiscated items returned in peace: a bracelet, a buckle and best wishes to families from both sides.  Then, a Vietnamese salutation of grace: “What happens in the past, stays in the past.  I wish you all good health and a blessed life.”

Nothing is sugar-coated, the story is told in an intensely human way: no judgments, just honesty.  Just life.  Pete Pepper’s rhythmic voiceover seemed to bathe his men in comfort: “we didn’t apologize for what we did and they didn’t either. They didn’t say we won. We never said we lost.”

“Killing Memories” is a documentary, but plays like a narrative feature. It’s a shame there’s no Oscar for documentary editing.  Applause is due.

KILLING MEMORIES screens at the Santa Fe Film Festival, 2011 on Friday, October 21, 2011 at 6:15P at the CCA. For tickets, call the 505-988-1234, or purchase online at